Television

Television review

Michael Jackson documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’ is riveting, shattering

A scene from HBO’s documentary “Leaving Neverland.”
HBO
A scene from HBO’s documentary “Leaving Neverland.”

Throughout Michael Jackson’s adulthood, he presented himself as a victim. And many people have gone along with that assessment, even after years of allegations of child sexual abuse, out-of-court settlements, and two public legal cases.

The logic is tempting, as, like armchair psychologists, they believe that Jackson loved innocence so passionately, that he enjoyed surrounding himself with preteen kids so constantly, because he’d been robbed of his own childhood. He was compensating for his loss. And he’d sacrificed his childhood for his genius, trying to make us happy, so perhaps there was some guilt in the readiness to accept his idiosyncrasies and fetishes. We deprived him of his childhood; the least we could do was indulge the supposedly harmless excesses it led to.

But the allegations in HBO’s “Leaving Neverland,” a riveting, grimly persuasive four-hour documentary, are the most powerful challenges yet to the public denial about Jackson that has thrived since his first sexual abuse case in 1993, which he settled out of court. Jackson may have been a victim in ways, as the intensity of his lifelong fame drove him to take refuge in a fairy-tale world. But according to the two-part film, which airs Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m., Jackson was at the same time a victimizer of the most insidious kind, a man whose hunger for innocence led him to rob children of that same precious commodity.

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The film, which created a stir at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and which inspired the Jackson estate to sue HBO for $100 million to stop the airing, alleges that Jackson, as an adult, strategically groomed boys, seduced their parents into submission with elaborate trips and money, and sexually abused the boys over and over again, each of the many nights they spent together, sometimes with the mothers in the next room. According to the film, he fitted Neverland Ranch with hidden rooms and alarms to protect him from getting caught in flagrante. As presented by James Safechuck, now 40, and Wade Robson, now 36, every step of Jackson’s enticement of them was deliberate and cynical, particularly as, they say, Jackson did what he could to separate the boys from their parents for full access.

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Some of the most unexpectedly powerful portions of “Leaving Neverland” revolve around Safechuck’s mother and Robson’s mother, grandmother, brother, and sister. Both in old clips and in fresh interviews, you can see how they, too, lost their bearings as the global superstar took special interest in their families, showing up in their modest homes to play with the boys. In the photos we see of those visits, Jackson looks like a giant Disney World Mickey Mouse beside these ordinary families in their average living rooms. The families traveled the world as part of a royal entourage, and along the way they dismissed instincts, questions, and suspicions, even as the boys held hands and slept with a fully grown man. The remorse the mothers feel now over their complicity — after having defended Jackson over the years since 1993 — is profound, and their families still remain in tatters in Jackson’s wake.

The film toggles between the two similar stories of alleged abuse suffered by Safechuck and Robson. Director Dan Reed keeps the cameras close to their faces for the interviews, so we can see every blink and swallow while they chronicle their relationships with Jackson in agonizing detail, including what they describe as years of sexual molestations. Robson first met Jackson in 1987, after winning a Michael Jackson dance contest in Brisbane, Australia, where his family lived. Jackson eventually invited his little fan to join him onstage at concerts, and soon Robson’s mother and sister moved to Los Angeles to be closer to Jackson and to take advantage of his promises about Robson’s career. The adult Robson says he felt “anointed.” Safechuck wasn’t a big Jackson fan as a child, but he appeared in a 1987 Pepsi commercial with the star and was eventually drawn into Jackson’s dazzling inner circle.

There is elaborate visual and audio documentation of everything, except, of course, the scenes of alleged abuse. Reed effectively paints in the two stories with old homemade photos and videos by the two families as well as news coverage of Jackson’s public appearances at the time. We get to hear phone messages left daily by Jackson and faxes he sent to the boys, all of which are disturbing in their emotionality and in their treatment of the boys as if they were contemporaries. Watching the young Robson and Safechuck in the clips, dancing with Jackson onstage and playing with him behind the scenes, it’s stunning to be reminded of just how small and susceptible these boys were. From this vantage point, after having seen “Finding Neverland,” it seems outrageous that the world ever passively watched this man — a man who, in terms of finance and fame, could run with any crowd he chose — wandering the world with prepubescent boys in tow.

Also disturbing is the predictable way, according to Safechuck and Robson, Jackson hammered home to the boys the importance of keeping the sexual activity a secret, telling them that they’d go to jail if anyone found out. He urged them not to trust people — especially women. And the boys loved Jackson, too, which added to their desire to protect him. Robson, in particular, says he has had a hard time viewing his sexual relationship with Jackson as exploitation. When the superstar swept into their lives, making them feel like the luckiest kids in the world, even having a mock wedding ceremony with one of them, their relationships with Jackson took on airs of romance. Once Jackson found new favorites, both boys felt the kind of rejection that a scorned lover feels, but still the glow lingered. Jackson would renew regular contact with the boys and their families — along with gifts, including a house — when he needed them to defend him in court, which they did.

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You might go into “Leaving Neverland” prepared to dismiss the allegations as a play for money and attention, especially since these men did formerly publicly deny that they were abused. But the film is particularly forceful as it accounts for every stage of their respective recoveries, which are still in progress, including their darkest feelings of fear, denial, and shame. Now married to women, both acknowledge that the birth of their first child triggered their internal reckonings over what happened to them.

“Leaving Neverland” is not a particularly imaginative documentary, in that it sticks to a straightforward narrative, and, in its empathetic approach, doesn’t bother trying to include views from “the other side.” But that’s most fitting for this film, which arrives just before the 10th anniversary of Jackson’s death in June 2009. It’s a shattering, unforgettable piece of work that will change forever the way I hear Jackson’s music.

LEAVING NEVERLAND

On: HBO

Sunday and Monday nights, 8-10

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.